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Sunday April 14th, 2024

Bhutanese women seek leadership roles

ECONOMYNEXT – In traditionally matrilineal Bhutan, patriarchal attitudes stifle women’s growth at decision-making levels.

Unlike most Asian countries, in Bhutan girls are wanted and favoured. Indeed, upon marriage, most men move to the homes of their bride, and property is transferred from mother to daughter. Women manage multiple tasks at home, while also holding office jobs, and are the decision-makers in the family. 

Yet, leadership roles in society for women remain elusive.

Says Aum Phuntshok Chhoden, Executive Director of the Bhutan Network for Empowering Women, (BNEW) ‘women enjoy almost a mythical status in comparison to their counterparts in neighbouring countries,’ yet, ‘in the political discourse is a male-dominated system.’

In the first parliamentary elections held in Bhutan in 2008, just ten of the 72 seats went to women. Of those, 8 had been elected, while two had been appointed by Bhutan’s King, Chodden explained.

That number had dropped at the next parliamentary election, with the total percentage of seats held by women going from 14 to 8 she added. But at the 2018 elections, there had been a small improvement, with the percentage of women rising to 15.3 percent.

The current Cabinet of 10, has just one woman, the health minister.

Chhoden was speaking at a webinar on the ‘Role of Women in Modern Bhutanese Society’, organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) South Asia on December 16th. Moderated by Namgay Zam the Executive Director of Journalists Association of Bhutan (JAB), the panel included Tshering Dolkar, Executive Director of Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW) and Aum Sonam Wangmo, Founder of Bhutan Yu-Druk Tours.

At the Local Government level, the 2011 election saw just 98 women elected for the 1,454 seats. One woman had been elected a chairperson of a Local Government authority. That number doubled in 2016, with two women appointed as chairpersons.  In the civil service too, there are fewer women in leadership roles. She added that the Bhutan’s King had appointed two women to the post of Secretary to civil service institutions. 


The exception to the rule seems to be in the constitutional bodies, where two of the four commissions are chaired by women.

Her organisation BENEW works extensively with women, grooming and preparing them to take on decision making positions at the highest levels of society.

The discussion was clear; the issue is not so much about women who have been trailblazers in many fields, not aspiring to be in leadership positions, but society’s unwillingness to open up to women taking on roles that have traditionally been held by men. As the panellists stated, Bhutan’s Monarchy has opened the door for women to be in decision-making positions, appointing them to head Constitutional Commissions and to the National Assembly.

However, even strong and capable women are not considered for a leadership position at the local government level for instance, if that role involves dressing up as a monk or riding a horse at a festival. As Chhoden explained, a woman taking on such a task is seen as inauspicious. 

Namgay Zam, added that the picture in the media industry is bleaker. While at least a few women are in parliament, so far there have only been two women in leadership positions in the media; a managing director appointed to the national broadcasting service in 2008, and the appointment of a woman editor in chief of the national newspaper Keunsel in 2018.  Male journalists, she said, far outnumber their female counterparts, and according to data collected by JAB, the ratio is 92 to 30. 

Across the country, women in leadership hold just about 17 to 18 percent, the webinar heard. 

The phallus symbol is displayed everywhere to ward off evil and harm, indicating the reality, says Chhoden that ‘patriarchy, dominates life at all levels.’

Tashiring Dolkar explained that both the Queen Mother and the Queen of Bhutan take a special interest in spearheading programmes to empower women. The Queen, who is the patron of the organisation Dolkar, uses the 2013 Domestic Violence Act to address societal challenges and to promote gender equality and equity.  Women, have endured domestic violence, mental health and trauma issues for years, she stated. Bhutan scores high on the World Happiness index, however, taken as a whole, says Dolkar, many Bhutanese, mostly women, are dealing with mental health issues. The separate mental health unit set up at the hospital, an initiative of the Queen, therefore, comes at an opportune moment, she pointed out.

Dolkar recalled that as a third-year College student in 1990, she had been asked to speak on the role of women in development at an event attended by the 4th King of Bhutan.  She had raised the need for a 25percent quota for women in parliament, resulting in the King questioning as to why there was such a drawback for women to play an equal role as men in society.

Responding to a question from the audience, Dolkar pointed out that women do not have to take on a male persona to be strong and accepted by society.

Her organisation provides many services to women, from counselling, legal aid, livelihood skills to micro-finance. 

Aum Sonam Wangmo transitioned from being a homemaker to a businesswoman in 1985. Those were days when airline ticketing was handled in Calcutta, India, and communication was limited to snail mail and the phone, which actually involved a Trunk call.  She also entered the tourism field providing trekking services, where she led a group of 10 to 15 group of men. She was ‘thrown into it, and took it on,’ Wangmo said, adding that anything is possible when “you put your mind to it.” 

Could a woman become the Prime Minister of Bhutan?  Says Wangmo, Bhutanese women multi-task and bear the responsibility of managing their families, and it is a woman’s decision whether they want to take on the added duties of a Prime Minister.

With the advent of technology and many young women having access to information, their enterprising spirit opens up more possibilities, she added. 

Bhutan measures its development through five-year plans, and, as Chhoden explained, there has been a concerted effort by the government to include gender sensitivity in mainstream activities. Bhutan is a signatory to many international conventions and must also meet the SGD goals, she said, she fears that may not be possible in the area of gender equality unless there is a ‘policy tweak or legislative tool.” She welcomed the inclusion of a national key research field on gender equality and women empowerment in the most recent five-year plan. 

India’s Panchayat system has given much hope to Bhutanese women, several of whom have been exposed to the workings of that system. While Indian women only receive an allowance for their contribution to the Panchayat, Bhutanese women in the civil service are paid for their work, and are better placed to make inroads at decision-making levels, Chhoden observed.

Society is flexible she noted, and “we must dare to be strong’” to counter the idea that only men are capable of leadership, while women play a ‘meek and humble role.’

The modern Bhutan, Chhoden concluded has the opportunity to “remove herself from the patrilineal role as practised in other nations, and use the strong matrilineal tradition to groom young boys and men to be more caring, compassionate and honest.”  A blend of the ‘good matrilineal and patrilineal traits’ explained Chodden, is the best way to proceed, as the ‘natural characteristics found amongst women, can be used to nature a feminine mould in leadership.”

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Sri Lanka undershoots inflation target in first quarter despite VAT hike

Sri Lanka undershoots inflation target in first quarter despite VAT hike

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s inflation is expected to lower than initially projected in 2024, despite a value added tax hike, Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe has said

“When we looked at the last two monetary policy reviews… we had an inflation path a little elevated to what was realized, ” he told reporters following a March 50 basis point rate cut.

“Mainly because our projection factored in the VAT increase in January and some of the short-term food price increases, we have seen in December and January.

But what we have seen the actual inflation realization, is that the impact of VAT has not been that much and also the reduction in electricity prices also has helped, as well as the supply conditions, especially food supplies has been better.

“As a result, inflation outcome has been much lower than we expected.”

Sri Lanka’s central bank has been conducting broadly deflationary policy, except perhaps in December 2024, when a private credit spike appears to have been accommodated by standing facilities on top a seasonal real demand for cash.

The central bank has also allowed the currency to re-appreciate departing inflationist policy generally seen since 1978, analysts say.

“In our projections, we see in the next 12 to 18 months, inflation will remain well below our target range between 4-6. In our expectation it will remain around 4-5 percent in the next 12 to 18 months.

“That is one of the reasons we saw we had some pace to reduce our policy rate.”

The central bank cut its policy corridor 50 basis points to 8.50 and 9.50 percent, and has allowed excess liquidity to build up in money markets from a balance of payments deficit (net dollar purchases) at the current market interest rate structure.

Though money is being injected through various tools allowing some banks to trade without deposits, overall, there is a sell down of its domestic securities holdings.

Sri Lanka has a reserve collecting central bank currently subject to IMF forex reserve targets and domestic asset sell down target (which are essentially complementary), an inflation target of up to 7 percent and an implicit potential output (printing money for growth) target.

The central bank currently providing exceptionally monetary stability not for many years, and cautiously lowering rates, as well as reversing some of the inflation it has created in the past in food prices and energy.

Since September 2022, when deflationary policy started to show up in the balance of payments, the central bank has only created 3.9 percent inflation according to the widely watched Colombo Consumer Price Index.

However, analysts have warned that in the past, deeply flawed operational frameworks involving multiple and contradictory anchors have tended to trip up when private credit recovered when rates are cut claiming inflation is low.

Sri Lanka also does not have a penalty rate for standing facilities, unlike countries with tighter operational frameworks, which are less prone to crises. (Colombo/Apr14/2024)

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Sri Lanka eyes on speedy debt resolution at IMF/WB Spring Meetings: State Finmin

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is looking forward to have discussions for a speedy debt resolution and restore debt sustainability at the Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) starting on Monday (15) in Washington, State Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe said.

Minister Semasinghe is leading the Sri Lankas delegation for this year’s IMF/WB Spring Meetings that includes Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe and Treasury Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana.

The island nation expects to conclude the debt restructuring negotiation with its private creditors and sovereign bond holders and formalize the already agreed deal with bilateral creditors by end of the first half of this year, government sources have told EconomyNext.

Sri Lanka also expects to receive the third tranche of the IMF by mid this year after the completion of the second review of a $3 billion loan program last month.

“We expect fruitful engagements that will pave the way for unlocking the next tranche of essential funding and a speedy debt resolution which will enhance economic stability, confidence, sustainable growth, restore debt sustainability and ultimately, improving the welfare of every Sri Lankan citizen,” the Minister said in his X (Twitter) platform.

“Sri Lanka’s journey to its current state of stability and progress is due to the invaluable support provided by the IMF, World Bank and international partners during the most severe economic crisis we faced since 2022. “

“As we navigate the complexities of global economic challenges, we will engage closely with the IMF and aim to contribute to broader international economic cooperation with our partners.”

“Through dialogue, partnership, and concerted efforts, we are confident that we will achieve brighter economic future for Sri Lanka,” Semasinghe said.

The Monday’s Spring Meetings come as President Ranil Wickremesinghe government is facing a presidential election after long delayed local government and provincial polls.

Some government officials have said there could be likely slippages in the IMF targets during the election period as majority of Sri Lankans feel their struggling has risen due the implementation of IMF conditions including increased taxes.

The government has already started to relax some of the tough conditions it has maintained to boost the state revenue amid an increase in the tax revenue.

However, President Wickremesinghe has vowed to continue the IMF-led reforms as they are citing they are the only solution to come out of the current unprecedented economic crisis. (Colombo/April 14/2024)

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LGBTQIA+ Rights: Europe and South Asia See Similar Discriminatory Practices

ECONOMYNEXT – The rights and protections of the LGBTQIA+ community have been fraught with challenges and continue to be so, despite the many gains achieved in recent years.

Nor are those handful of rights universally applied, a recent discussion which looked at the European and South Asian perspectives on same-sex rights and unions revealed. Most developed nations have introduced protections for those identifying as LGBTQIA+, and a view from a distant lens paints a picture of tolerance. Yet, a closer look at the European arena throws up the many gaps that are evident in the application of the law.

In the so-called conservative South Asian nations, changes to legislation are slow to be implemented. That may come as a surprise, for, contrary to popular belief, same-sex relationships were culturally acceptable in the South Asian region and is not a Western concept points out Ruhaan Joshi, a Public Policy Practitioner from India.

Society’s view on same-sex relationships dimmed with the imposition of Western values and the criminalisation of such relationships with the advent of colonial rule.

While the LGBTQIA+ communities in South Asian countries currently battle to have same-sex relationships decriminalised and their unions legally accepted, the irony is that countries that first made such relationships punishable by law have moved on to be more welcoming, though some discriminatory practices continue.

Joshi was part of a discussion themed ‘On Being Queer and LGBTQIA+ in South Asia and Europe, held in Germany on April 9 this year. The discussion which included the release of two papers which examined the rights and protections of the LGBTQIA+ community in Europe and South Asia, respectively, was organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Joining Joshi in the discussion were lawyer and parliamentarian Premnath C Dolawatte from Sri Lanka, Milosz Hodun, President, Projekt Polska Foundation, Poland, Michael Kauch, a Member of the European Parliament and RENEW Europe Group and Inaya Zarakhel, a Dutch-Pakistani actress and an activist on Queer Rights, who moderated the discussion. The two papers were presented by Hodun and Joshi, respectively.

In his opening remarks, Kauch pointed out that while the view of the liberals is that the rights recognized in one member nation of the EU must be accepted by all member countries, that is not the ground reality, the issue of Rainbow families being a case in point.

In the context of the European Union, though the Court of Justice has ruled on the freedom of movement of those in same-sex partnerships and their families, the ruling is not universally applied by member nations.

In Italy, and some European nations, surrogacy which helps childless couples to become parents is illegal. In other situations where same-sex parents are of different nationalities a child in that union faces restriction of movement or the possibility of being stateless if one parent hails from a country where such parental rights are not recognised.

Hodun meanwhile stated that in Poland transgender persons must first sue their parents for the gender assigned to them at birth, to have their gender marker changed on documents.

Some countries such as Russia and Azerbaijan resort to State-sponsored homophobia, and in many instances politicians and political parties promote such biases to boost their voter base it was pointed out. Even where laws are in place for the protection of LGBTQIA+ rights, there is no political will to implement them.

In Europe where migrants arrive in droves seeking asylum, and are frowned upon by many of those countries, LGBTQIA+ members face even more discrimination Hodun says, both by other refugees and governments, where most often the state ignores the situation despite the guidelines issued by the UN and the European Court of Justice. Hate speech and hate crimes too are on the rise he adds stating that at least 80 per cent go unreported.

Increasingly the LGBTQIA+ community has experienced a diminishing of their safe spaces as right-wing and populist governments are elected across the globe. Taking a dig at feminism, meanwhile, Kauch states that though feminists uphold a woman’s right to opt for an abortion, they take a different approach on the topic of surrogacy.

Dolawatte who waded into unchartered waters when he presented a Private Member’s Bill to decriminalise same-sex relationships through an amendment to section 365 of the Penal Code and the repealing of section 365A in its totality, is hopeful that the Bill will pass its third reading. It’s been an uphill battle he says, referring to the case filed in the Supreme Court against the Bill. The court ruled in his favour.

He had little or no support from his own party members, but says the President of the country, and younger party members are with him on this issue. Apart from making Sri Lanka a safe space, it would encourage foreign nationals identifying as LGBTQIA+ to visit without fear, and thus boost tourism he opines.

As Joshi states society has come a long way from when LGBTQIA+ were made fun of and were subject to violence to the positive portrayal in movies. Such movies are also well-received by society. Transgender identity has a distinct recognition in South Asian religious beliefs. Hijra, Khwaja Sara or Kinnar are some names given to transgender folk and they have, since ancient times been an accepted group in society. On the one hand, there’s Afghanistan and the Maldives which make no allowances for the LGBTQIA+ community, while Nepal became the first South Asian nation in 2023, to register a same-sex marriage, Joshi states. In most South Asian nations, the courts have ruled in favour of relaxing the rules against this community, and, like in Europe, it is the governments that drag their feet.

For governments to change their stance, society must take the lead in fighting for the unconditional dignity of the individual, freedom of movement, and safeguarding the tenets of democracy, he says adding that it must also run parallel with the LGBTQIA+ community looking beyond themselves at issues that impact democratic values, and the societal restrictions non-LGBTIQIA+ groups face, such as opposition to inter-caste marriage and the right to adopt outside their caste systems and equal access to many other privileges.

While the panellists advocated working together across the global divide as a step towards achieving equal rights for all, Dolawatte also called for caution; too much pressure on such issues from Europe he said may not be welcome, and must be handled with care.

With right-wing and populist governments getting elected across the globe, Kauch claims the forthcoming EU elections will prove crucial in deciding how future and current governments ensure tolerance and diversity amongst their citizenry.

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